Jewish Journal


Was the Rabbi Race a ‘Disaster’? 6 Comments on Israel’s New Chief Rabbis

by Shmuel Rosner

July 25, 2013 | 8:18 am

Israel's new Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, David Lau

Yesterday, as I was following the final hours of the race for chief rabbis of Israel, a famous George Costanza quote kept coming back to me: “I live my whole life in shame. Why should I die with dignity?”

This whole race was a shame- why should it end with dignity?

If you don’t know yet, Israel has two new chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef. Both are the sons of former chief rabbis, both are representatives of the Haredi world, both are good enough to serve – possibly better than some of their predecessors. The world of the rabbinate didn’t change much yesterday, but you shouldn’t believe those who think that something “terrible” happened (MK Elazar Stern used this term). The rabbinate isn’t important enough to make any of the possible outcomes “terrible” or, for that matter, “fantastic”.

Take a look at the following comments to get a quick sense of what happened yesterday:


This was obviously a victory for the Shas party, and a personal victory for its new-old leader, Aryeh Deri. In the last couple of weeks Deri demonstrated that he is still much better at manipulating the political process than the novices of the Habayit Hayehudi party. The leader of Habayit, Naftali Bennet, was maneuvered twice: he took a hit from within, when members of his own party and “camp” rejected his choice and refrained from voting for rabbi David Stav. Bennet was strong enough to pass a formal decision supporting Stav, but since the candidate of choice of the other camp stayed in the race, there was nothing he could do against people still voting for him.

The religious-Zionist vote was divided, the Haredi vote was unified and well organized. The proof: 68 votes for Ashkenazi Lau, 68 votes for Sephardic Yosef – the political “deal” worked like clockwork. The religious-Zionists had an impressive electoral achievement in the general elections, and are members of the coalition, but if they can’t get their act together the haredis will bite them time and again.

Well, can they? –I think they can’t because the camp is fractured to the point of effectively being two camps and not one. Habayit Hayehudi – the Jewish Home - is a mirage. It is two parties pretending, and not quite successfully, to be one.


Deputy Minister of religious affairs, rabbi Eli Ben Dahan bragged on the radio yesterday that the public seemed interested and engaged in the process of electing the rabbis more than ever. That’s possible, and it only proves what every TV reality show producer already knows: a competitive, dirty, gossipy, aggressive, manipulative race will get higher ratings. It isn’t the rabbinate that interests the public - it’s the horse race.


Two points related to the dirtiness of the race:

  1. It is only terrible if you think about this as a rabbinical race. If you think about it – as we all should – as a political race for an administrative job, the race for chief rabbi isn’t much different from any primary battle. In other words: attempting to see this process as having some measure of holiness is a mistake – our mistake. The office of the chief rabbi is a political office, the race for chief rabbi is a political race. No better or worse than other races.
  2. This is hardly the dirtiest race ever. Back in 1993, when Lau senior was running for chief rabbi, my wife was heavily involved in covering the race and writing about it. Among other things, she was the one who exposed the allegations of sexual misconduct and financial shenanigans. It was a race that included threats, private investigators, manipulations, tricks, slurs – a dirty race. I can guarantee that the next race, ten years from now, will also be dirty, unless the rules of the game are changed. It's good that we have ten years between races – enough time to forget.


Thinking about politics, it was interesting to hear yesterday the two mayors of the two largest cities – both members of the electoral body - speaking about their preferences. Well, one of them, Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv, didn’t speak much. Is it not strange for the mayor of the large and very secular city not to care about the identity of the next chief rabbi? Not really. Huldai has Lau the father as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, so for him it was easier to remain silent. On the one hand, publicly supporting the haredi candidates would be risky in an election year. On the other hand, he didn’t want to go against Lau the son and spoil the good relations.

The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, did speak- loud and clear. He declared that a “Zionist” rabbi would be better – he meant Stav and Eliyahu, the candidates of the religious-Zionist camp. I’m sure that for Barkat this is a principled opinion, but it was probably made easier to express by the fact that Barkat needs the religious-Zionist vote in the coming mayoral election, and he already knows that he has no chance of getting the haredi vote (the haredis are going to support Moshe Leon).

See? It’s all Politics: for the manipulating parties, for the candidates, and for the voters.


Many of the commentators and interviewees this morning were calling to dismantle the rabbinate – because of the dirty race and the unfortunate result. I find that to be problematic. The rabbinate might not be necessary, and it might be better for Israel not to have it, but such a conclusion can’t be the result of the outcome an election. If the institution is unnecessary, it doesn’t matter if the rabbi is Lau or Stav, Yosef or Eliyahu. If the institution is necessary, Israelis should learn to live with the outcome of a legal vote.


So, do we need a rabbinate? I don’t think we do, but I also don’t think that such a decision is an easy one. There are things that the rabbinate does and are necessary – considering current Israeli law and culture. Dismantling the rabbinate means changing many other things, and possibly means a measure of unintended consequences. If someone wants to be serious about proposing such a course of action, one should come up with more than a headline and map a new religious-cultural-political landscape of a post-rabbinate Israel.

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